In pre-dawn darkness and near-freezing drizzle, the shikara — a graceful, gondola-like canopied boat — made its way through a series of waterways. It was taking me to the daily wholesale floating produce market that begins at daybreak on Dal Lake in Srinagar, the main city of India's Jammu and Kashmir state.
Kashmir, the region disputed between Pakistan and India and engulfed by unrest for decades, saw renewed fighting in recent weeks. But on this morning on Dal Lake, the only sounds were the steady dipping of my shikara wallah Farooq's heart-shaped paddle, his low singing in Kashmiri and the occasional splash of a water bird.
We reached an opening of water where a handful of canals met as the market was starting. Morning quickly shook off its darkness, revealing 60 or 70 low-riding wooden boats with men perched on their bows and maneuvering around each other single-handedly with a paddle.
On this winter morning, the main produce on offer was two types of gogji (turnips), solid white ones and those with purplish tops. Often paired in the pot with lamb or kidney beans and heavily seasoned with spices, they are a winter staple in Kashmir. Carrots, too, were in abundance. And there were some of the season's last nadru, or lotus roots — long white tubers pulled up from the shallow lake that are a favorite local delicacy.
According to vendors, the mandi (market) is over a century old. It has long been an iconic tourist attraction during Srinagar's busy summer season, but since the turmoil began in 1989, the market has become particularly important to those living in the area, according to Hayat Bhat, the owner of Srinagar's legendary restaurant Ahdoo's. It has become a frequent lifeline.
Srinagar is located in the center of the fertile, 80-by-20-mile Kashmir Valley. While over 5,000 feet in elevation and almost 800 miles from the sea, the city is dominated by water. Sitting amid four lakes, crisscrossed by ancient waterways and intersected by the meandering Jhelum River, which coils through the city center like a serpent, Srinagar probably has more miles of canals than narrow streets.
Kashmir has been a point of bitter dispute since the 1947 Partition created independent India and Pakistan. While both claim its territory and have fought three wars over it, India controls about two-thirds of the region, including the main valley. A separatist movement engulfed the region in 1989, and tens of thousands of people have since died in Kashmir. Srinagar has been beset by frequent curfews — when shops and schools are shuttered, often for days or weeks at a time. The killing of a popular militant leader in July 2016 led to over 50 consecutive days of curfews, during which movement was restricted and businesses remained closed, except during very specific periods of "relaxation."
My first visit to the market came in the summer of 1993, when violence paralyzed the city. During the month that I stayed on a houseboat on Nigeen Lake, a picturesque lake separated from Dal by a causeway, shops were frequently shut and driving forbidden.
"The floating market is exempt," said Farooq, as we floated along the edge of the market. "It is open every day. It never closes."
"The waterways are very often used by locals to travel whilst other roads might be blocked because of a curfew," said Khurram Hussain, the owner of the long-standing Hotel Dar-Es-Salam, on Nigeen Lake. The curfew doesn't apply to the floating market. "This market thrives through the year."
"With so many curfews implemented in the city," said Ahdoo's Bhat, the floating market has become particularly important.
The market was lively but not boisterous, and the boats bumped against one another as buyers and sellers negotiated — and chatted. In the frigid weather, most were squatting over a kangri, a clay "fire pot" filled with hot embers and protectively encased in wicker. They wore a long woolen overgarment called a pheran, which could be draped over a kangri, converting it into a personal body heater.
According to Marryam H. Reshii, the well-known Times of India food critic and expert on Kashmir's gastronomical offerings, the produce remains "top notch" throughout the year. Farmers bring eggplants, tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, water chestnuts, cauliflower and beans, plus melons, watermelons and apples. Lotus roots sell by the bundle, but everything else gets weighed on large hand-held balances.
Small shops, hotels and restaurants get produce from here, both directly and indirectly. For his hotel's restaurant, Hussain buys lotus roots, pumpkins, turnips and gourds from local vendors who bring back produce from the market each morning. Cooks at Ahdoo's, which opened in 1918, particularly like the market's leafy green vegetables and lotus roots.
Much of the market's produce comes from the "floating gardens" that fill giant swaths of Dal Lake, including around the market itself. They are made by weaving together branches and roots into floating mats. On these bases, farmers add layers of cut weeds, algae and silt until they are 3 to 6 feet deep. Generally 6 to 10 feet wide, they can stretch as long as 500 feet, with thin waterways between them only large enough for a narrow boat to pass through.
The market lasts just two hours each day. By the time merchants began paddling homeward, the rain had turned to snow.
It snowed for the next 36 hours. Late the following afternoon, it cleared, and temperatures plummeted to 22 degrees Fahrenheit overnight. Large parts of the waterways around Srinagar froze.
When I returned to the market site a few days later by shikara, Farooq followed a path cut though the ice by traders making their way in the early darkness with their produce.
Political instability can't close the market. And neither can inclement weather.
Jeff Koehler is the author of numerous books, including Where the Wild Coffee Grows and Darjeeling. Follow him on Twitter @koehlercooks or Instagram @jeff_koehler.